School of Ayurvedic Diet & Digestion
Eating disorders are fundamentally psychological conditions, and tend to have deep roots that stem from some form of trauma during childhood or early teenage years. These psychological issues are out of the scope of an Ayurvedic Practitioner, and a person with an eating disorder should always consult both a trained psychiatrist and medical doctor for ongoing treatment.
Ayurveda can still, however, offer a wealth of practical methods to regain physical strength following an eating disorder. This article will share a more body focused approach to eating disorders, and share invaluable tools that Ayurveda uses to help a person rebuild digestive strength (agni) and a supportive lifestyle following an eating disorder.
While indigestion may not be the root cause in every case, it will certainly develop throughout the course of an eating disorder as digestive strength is weakened. When digestion is weak or defective, appetite and cravings can become distorted. In this way, indigestion can alter a person's perspective on food and lead to intense cravings and poor food choices, which only adds fuel to the fire.
Healing from an eating disorder has a strong physical component, especially if the person is underweight, malnourished, or has digestive complications as a result of binging, purging, or undereating. Ayurveda can work in conjunction with Western treatments by teaching a person to connect with food and appetite in a more positive way and encourage healthy eating habits.
While Ayurveda tends to take a more body focused approach, it supports the fact that eating disorders are primarily psychological. In Ayurveda psychology is never viewed as separate from the body or from the spirit. Anything that happens to one component inevitably affects the others. Ayurveda offers a practical perspective to understand eating disorders as it takes the physical circumstances into consideration too.
There are a variety of causes of the onset of an eating disorder, including psychological trauma, physical abuse, as well as pressure from the media and peers to obtain the "perfect" body. The type of trauma involved in the development of an eating disorder may include physical abuse, emotional abuse, a parental break-up, loss of a family member, or sexual abuse. People may rely on food to try and control a situation, cope with stress, or provide comfort following a trauma. Food can also be used to reduce post trauma anxiety or to avoid dealing with memories of a challenging or traumatic experience.
In certain cases of sexual abuse, a person may want to make their body less attractive to the opposite sex, and they enter into a pattern of either binging or self-starvation to alter their appearance. Others can become obsessive about eating only pure food to overcome the guilt associated with their abuse, or deny their body the fuel it needs out of self-punishment.
Eating disorders also have genetic influences with genetic factors accounting for approximately 40-60% responsibility in anorexia and bulimia. It is crucial for a person to receive early treatment in these conditions. With proper and timely treatment, it is likely a person can make a full recovery. However, it is not uncommon for those with an eating disorder to struggle with it throughout adulthood if no treatment is sought.
As discussed previously, Ayurveda also presents indigestion as one of the main physical factors in developing an eating disorder. Imagine if every time you sat down to eat, you experienced anxiety, indigestion, or some level of either physical or emotional pain and discomfort. Picture yourself feeling incredibly stressed and tense as you choose each bite of food, and then feel terribly bloated and unwell at the end of a small meal. To top it off, anything you do eat results in either constipation or diarrhea.
You may be able to understand now how feeling such anxiety and discomfort at each meal can lead a person to stop eating large meals, or barely anything at all. In this scenario, where there is often weak digestion and / or anxiety with each meal (vishamagni), an empty stomach can start to feel more and more attractive. Also, if a person has weak, slow digestion but eats heavy comfort food in the evening, they can start to feel nauseous as food sits stagnant in their stomach (mandagni). This nausea can lead the person to want to purge the food from their body, and can trigger bulimia.
A person with anorexia generally displays signs of weakness, depletion, fatigue, and headaches. They may also show signs of mood disorders, including anxiety or depression, and may become withdrawn and secretive from friends and family. Due to their low body weight and lack of nutrients, they often experience low blood sugar, low blood pressure, dizziness, and the absence of menstruation (amenorrhea).
Anorexia is a dangerous disease that requires ongoing medical care. It may also require regular counselling to find and resolve any psychological causes of the condition. Ayurveda can help a person restore appetite after anorexia, build digestive strength, and re-establish a healthy relationship with food.
A warm, nourishing diet of Vata pacifying meals helps build strength while a person is restoring their weight. Food should be well spiced and easy to digest to reduce any strain on a weakened digestive system. After anorexia, a person's agni can be low due to repeated food restriction. Sipping hot water throughout the day, or hingvastak churna in hot water with meals, can help rekindle the digestive fire.
A low stress lifestyle will also be very beneficial for a person recovering from anorexia, including taking time off work if necessary. Daily self-massage (abhyanga) with a dense, warming oil, such as sesame oil, will help build strength and calm the nervous system. They may also gain some benefit from body focused treatments, such as acupuncture or massage therapy. Nutritive herbs like ashwagandha, shatavari, and vidari can also increase and restore strength to depleted tissues and build immunity and vitality (ojas).
A person suffering with bulimia has a distorted relationship with both food and their body. They may be either underweight, overweight, or maintain a somewhat balanced weight, making it difficult for loved ones to recognize the condition.
Bulimia can have serious repercussions on the body. Vomiting forces harmful stomach acids back through the esophagus, and can cause inflammation, acid reflux, recurring sore throat, and low digestive strength. It can also create mental anguish, as the person gets stuck in a restrictive eating pattern and a cycle of binging and purging that feels impossible to break.
Bulimia can also disrupt a person's metabolism. To regulate metabolism, eating three meals a day at roughly the same times reassures the body that food is available on a consistent schedule. This also helps reduce the desire to binge. Any restrictive behavior around eating should be avoided and weighing scales removed from the house.
Instead, a nourishing diet with wide variety can be introduced. To reduce any GI inflammation, a soothing Pitta pacifying diet can help. It is important keep in mind that acidic foods, pungent spices, and other digestive irritants such as alcohol and caffeine, are best to avoid while the digestive tract is recovering.
A person who is recovering from bulimia generally needs to rebuild digestive strength without overheating their digestive tract. Avipattikar churna gently stimulates digestive strength and also removes excess heat from the GI tract. Taken in aloe vera juice, its anti-inflammatory effect is strengthening and this cooling juice helps heal the mucus membranes of the GI tract that may have been damaged. Shatavari can also be used for a short period of time to reduce inflamed tissues.
Regular purging can also severely imbalance electrolyte levels. Sipping hot water throughout the day, and drinking water with a pinch of mineral salt, coconut sugar, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice before each meal can help rehydrate the digestive tract. A doctor can test for electrolyte depletion, and may recommend an electrolyte supplement.
To overcome the emotional and mental stresses of bulimia, a person may require ongoing therapy. It is also beneficial to learn to eat more mindfully and deal with emotions as they arise, instead of turning to food for support. Brahmi is a soothing mental tonic that can help rejuvenate the nervous system and reduce intense emotions.
Often, a person with binge eating disorder has lost the ability to distinguish the difference between true and false hunger. True hunger is when your body genuinely needs resources to nourish your cells. Any other desire for food is considered to be a false hunger. For example, emotional eating, eating when bored, stress induced eating, and any overeating in general, are all false hungers.
A person with binge eating disorder usually has a distorted appetite, which means they continue eating well beyond the necessary amount, often as a way to cope with mental or physical stressors. Binge eating disorder can lead to many other serious conditions including obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high triglycerides. Ayurvedically, it is considered to be primarily a Kapha condition.
Binge eating disorder is often provoked by dieting, food restriction, or bouts of self-starvation. A person in recovery should not cut out major food groups from their diet, as this can lead to feelings of withdrawal and result in further binging. However, certain foods, such as sodas, chip, cookies, candy, and highly processed foods, contain addictive ingredients and should be limited. Choosing foods that are as close to their natural form as possible reduces addictive behavior and binging.
Establishing a regular routine of three meals per day with no major food groups restricted can help re-establish a healthy connection with food. A person overcoming binge eating disorder may benefit from a Kapha pacifying diet to lighten the load on the digestive system. It can also help naturally support sustainable weight loss without restrictive dieting.
Consistent overeating can bog down digestion and slow metabolism. To stimulate sluggish digestion and improve fat metabolism, trikatu or chitrak can be used. Known as the "killer of sweet," gymnema reduces food cravings, particularly for sugar, and can help overcome addictions to certain foods. It also helps balance blood sugar levels.
Similar to all other eating disorders, a person with binge eating disorder should seek regular sessions with a qualified counsellor with experience in the area. Finding a form of exercise that is enjoyable, such as walking, dancing, or swimming, can cultivate a more positive body image. Herbs like brahmi and calamus help lift the heaviness of the mind that can occur with binge eating, particularly if it is linked with depression.
The first step to restore digestive health following an eating disorder is to reduce indigestion. As this article explains, indigestion occurs in almost all cases of eating disorders, and can actually be a causative factor too. If a person regularly experiences uncomfortable indigestion, excessive gas, or pain after eating certain foods, they may start to desire an empty stomach, or feel like they need to purge the contents of their stomach to feel some relief.
Reducing indigestion associated with eating disorders will depend on both the person and the condition. Digestive formulas can help increase agni that is weakened during the course of an eating disorders. In all cases, following a diet of minimally processed foods can help re-establish a healthy appetite. Whole food recipes and easy to digest meals will reduce digestive strain, as can following the 10 healthy habits for improved digestion. Establishing a routine of regular mealtimes can also help eliminate much of the stress and anxiety a person recovering from an eating disorder can experience around food.
It is not just diet alone that will help a person fully restore health after an eating disorder. As well as building digestive strength, a supportive and sustainable lifestyle can be implemented. This involves including daily acts of self-care, such as self-massage, yoga, and belly breathing. These techniques can help re-establish a more positive and loving relationship with the body, restore strength and confidence, and bring a sense of stability to the mind.
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